Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Criticism and the Essay
I. General Introduction
By Professor Bliss Perry
NO one can turn over the pages of The Harvard Classics without realizing how much of the most delightful writing of the last three hundred years has taken the form of the essay. No literary form is more flexible than this, and no form except lyric poetry has touched upon a wider variety of topics. Yet there is one subject of enduring human interest to which essayists are perpetually turning, and upon which they always find something new to say. It is the subject of Books and Reading. In the essays which deal with this perennially interesting topic, there is a constant expression of literary judgmentsjudgments that convey racial and national convictions, the ruling ideas of a generation or a school, or the likes and dislikes of individuals. These judgments, properly collected and classified, become the material for a history of literary criticism. Indeed, a surprisingly large proportion of the epoch-making documents of criticism are really essays, both in form and mood.
The significance of the essay in the formation and perpetuation of critical doctrine is also apparent if one turns to the formal histories of criticism. Systematic treatises on the theory of the fine arts, including literature, have appeared at intervals since the time of Aristotle. The science of æsthetics, as we know it, was developed in Germany during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and it forms an integral portion of the philosophical system of Kant and of many other philosophers. But these formal treatises upon the nature of beauty, involving as they do the analysis of the beautiful as it exists in the natural world and in works of art, appeal primarily to a few thinkers and scholars, and not to the general public. It is true that men of genius like Goethe, Schiller, and Burke have the faculty of discussing the philosophic basis of æsthetic theories in such a way as to make them interesting and highly instructive to the general reader. But as a rule the systematic treatises upon the nature and history of the fine arts, and of literature in particular, have been necessarily addressed to a limited audience. The discussions which have really caught the ear of the public have been the casual utterances of brilliant men in the act of attacking or defending a literary creed, of writing a preface to a book or a play, or of hazarding, in some dialogue, pamphlet, or essay, a new opinion about beauty, a new theory of poetry or of prose.
To understand, therefore, the history of actual critical opinion, one must study the essay. It is a very variable, highly personalized literary form: resembling now a dinner-table monologue or dialogue, and now a letter to a friend. Here it is a mere sparkling fragment of some solid mass of philosophical theory, and there it is a tiny jewel of paradox, interrogation, or fancy; here an echo of some great historical debate over tragedy or comedy, and there the first faint stirring of some new, living idea, which by and by will be tossed about with all the winds of doctrine. But however changeable this literary type may be, one who reads the various essays in The Harvard Classics can hardly fail to get a general notion of the nature of the essay. The type will gradually make itself clear to him, as something different from the formal treatise, the dialogue or the letter or the magazine article. He will learn to watch the type emerge into clear outline with Montaigne1 and Bacon.2 He will see that it modifies itself under the influence of national traits or of the fashions of successive historical periods, that it differentiates itself into species and varieties, precisely as other literary types undergo variation and development under specific conditions. It will flourish in one age and decline in another, as do the drama and the lyric, although, like them, the essay represents a certain permanent mood which never goes wholly out of fashion.
The reader who is interested in literary criticism will soon find that the essay has been a particularly convenient form for conveying literary theories from one mind or age to another. The critical essay, while conforming in general to the flexible laws of the essay, is used for a specific purpose. It deals with the emergence, continuance, and disappearance of critical opinions; it records, in an informal but none the less effective manner, the judgment of Europe upon books. Let us take a specific example. Charles Lambs Essay on the Tragedies of Shakespeare3 is a singularly perfect specimen of the essay type. It is personal and casual. It opens with the sentence: Taking a turn the other day in the Abbey, I was struck with the affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember to have seen before, and which upon examination proved to be a whole-length of the celebrated Mr. Garrick; and then Lamb passes, with apparent artlessness, from the affectations and tricks of actors to the profound question of the possibility of an adequate representation of the personalities of Hamlet and Lear upon the stage. This personal essay, with its odd whims and fancies, deepens page by page into a masterly critical essay, which makes a distinct phase of the attitude of the English mind toward Englands greatest poet.
In similar fashion, Victor Hugos preface to his drama Cromwell4 is a capital example of a personal essayan essay rampant in its defense of the authors own literary creed. But that creed as it happens, becomes also the triumphant creed of the young French Romanticists. They rallied around the preface to Cromwell as soldiers rally around a flag, and the essay became a concrete embodiment of a new reaction against Classicism, a significant document in the literary history of modern Europe.
The two essays which have just been mentionedpersonal in their immediate character, and yet even more significant as representing doctrines which came to be held by a generation or a schoolmay also serve to illustrate a third aspect from which essays may be regarded. One may study them, in chronological order, as successive indications of a national point of view. Thus the English critical essay, in the Elizabethan period, in the seventeenth century, or in any subsequent epoch, reveals the precise extent to which the English mind accepts, modifies, or rejects the main body of European critical doctrine. As affording material for such a chronological study, it is not essential that any particular English critical essay should be marked by personal distinction of style, or by special critical acumen. The undistinguished mass of book reviews, of gossip about writers, about the stage and other forms of contemporary art, is often the most valuable evidence of the instinctive working of the English mind. What does an average bookish Englishman, in a given decade, understand by the words tragic, comic, heroic, the unities, wit, taste, humor, Nature? The historian finds the answer in a thousand casual expressions, each one of which bears the stamp of the period and the race. The Englishman interprets the general laws and phrases of European criticism in terms of his own neighborhood and time, and a collection of English critical essays thus illustrates the traits of the English national character.
Let us now turn from the broader relations of the essay with criticism, and endeavor to ascertain precisely what the word essay means. The older English form of the word is assay, i. e., a trial or experiment. It is derived, through the French, from a late Latin word exagium, which means a standard weight, or more precisely, the act of weighing. The word examine comes from the same Latin root. As defined by the Century Dictionary, essay means I, A trial, attempt or endeavor; 2, An experimental trial or test; 3, An assay or test of metal; 4, In literature, a discursive composition concerned with a particular subject, usually shorter and less methodical and finished than a treatise; a short disquisition. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was himself one of the most famous essayists of his day, defines essay in his Dictionary as A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition. Possibly it was the Doctors happy word sally which suggested to a recent writer, Mr. F. N. Zabriskie, the following excellent definition: The essay is properly a collection of notes, indicating certain aspects of a subject, or suggesting thoughts concerning it; not a formal siege, but a series of assaults, essays or attempts upon it. It is for this reason that Mr. Zabriskie calls the essayist the excursionist of literature, the literary angler, the meditator rather than the thinker; and he points out that the German mind is not adapted to the essay, since the Germans are not satisfied to make mere assaults upon a subject, mere excursions into it; they must go through a subject from end to end and leave it a conquered territory.
Montaigne, who was the initiator of the modern essay (1580), laid stress upon its essentially autobiographic nature. He confesses that he writes not to discover things, but to lay open myself. He thinks that an essay should be spontaneous and free from every artificial trammel. It should have the characteristics of open, varied, wide-ranging talk: I speak unto paper as unto the first man I meet. Lord Bacon, whose first edition of essays appeared in 1597, is more orderly than Montaigne. He masses his material more closely, keeps to his topic, packs his sentences as full as they will hold. He is too austere for the leisurely, personal method of Montaigne; he imparts his concentrated worldly wisdom coolly, almost impassively; he loves the pregnant opening and close. To write just treatises, he says, requireth time in the writer and leisure in the reader, which is the cause that hath made me choose to write certain brief notes, set down rather significantly than curiously, which I have called essays; the word is late, but the thing is ancient. For Senecas Epistles to Lucilius, if one mark them well, are but essaysthat is, dispersed meditations. And finally, Addison, whose essays sum up the early eighteenth century as completely as Montaigne and Bacon represent the late Renaissance, is quite as explicit as they are in emphasizing the informal character of this type of literature: When I make choice of a subject that has not been treated on by others, I throw together my reflections on it without any order or method, so that they may appear rather in the looseness and freedom of an essay, than in the regularity of a set discourse.
The thing is ancient; there is no doubt of that. Analogies to the mood of the modern essay and to its urbane, free, flexible methods of discussion, may be found in the Dialogues of Plato,5 in the Lives6 and Morals of Plutarch, in the letters of Cicero,7 Horace, and the younger Pliny,8 in the gossipy Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, in the talks of Epictetus,9 and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.10 There is nothing new under the sun; and there were Greek and Roman gentlemen quite as capable as Montaigne of writing with frankness, ease, quaintness, and an open-minded attitude of skeptical inquiry. But though they often revealed the spirit of the modern essayist, they were groping uncertainly after the appropriate literary form. Montaignes great achievement was to hazard his fortunes in an unsurpassed series of sallies, assaults, assays upon a hundred entrenched topics, and always to come bravely offso that his tactics became the model for all literary skirmishes. To think and feel and write like Montaigne was to produce the modern essay. Without his example, it is doubtful if we should have had the essays of Lamb, of Emerson, and of Stevenson.
Supporting the whole theory and practice of Montaigne, undoubtedly, stood the Renaissance itself. This re-birth of the human mind, this new awakening of vital energies and intellectual powers, involved a new way of looking at the world. Nothing seemed quite the same as it had been. Church and empire and feudal system were apparently weakening; new nationalities, new languages were to be reckoned with; new continents were explored, new inventions altered the face of daily life; a new intellectual confidence, inquiry, criticism, supplanted the mediæval obedience to authority. There was a new weighing, assaying of all things. The actual world was changing before mens eyes, and the inner world changed no less. There was universal curiosity about individual capacities and opinions, experiences and tastes. The whole undulating and various scheme of thingsto use a favorite expression of Montaignewas a direct provocative of the essay state of mind; and the essay form, in turn, in its looseness, vagueness, and range, was singularly adapted to the intellectual spirit of the period.
One type of Renaissance essay, for example, concerned itself with a casual survey of the fragments of the classical and mediæval world. Modern books like Taylors Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages, and The Mediæval Mind, Einsteins Italian Renaissance in England, Sir Sidney Lees French Renaissance in England, Spingarns Literary Criticism in the Renaissance, and Saintsburys History of Criticism set before us, with abundance of detail, the kind and extent of knowledge of the past which was possessed by Renaissance essayists. Caxtons naïve Prologues and Epilogues11 to the popular classical and mediæval books which he issued in English, Sir Philip Sidneys chivalrous Defense of Poesy,12 and Edmund Spensers explanation to Sir Walter Raleigh of the purpose of The Faërie Queene13 are good illustrations of the attitude of typical Englishmen toward the imaginative life of the past. Gregory Smiths collection of Elizabethan Critical Essays affords a fairly complete view of the critical ideas which sixteenth-century England had inherited from Europe. The evolution of the English critical essay, during the three hundred years which have elapsed since then, is mainly the story of the preservation of these ideas and their modification or transformation under the successive impacts of new intellectual forces, and of differing social and literary conditions.
Another type of essay, originating in the Renaissance, and a favorite with Montaigne, deals not so much with books as with life itself. The new culture, the novel intellectual perceptions, altered at once the accepted theories of mans duty and destiny. Montaigne does not dogmatize about these matters: he asks questions, he suggests possible answers. The speculative essay, the philosophical and scientific essay, the social essay which draws its materials from the ever-renewed revelation of the actual life of man, all find their source in an awakened curiosity. The enthusiasm, the gusto, with which sixteenth-century men discussed every topic within their range of vision, has remained an integral element of the effective essay. A man may set himself sadly and grimly to work upon his formal treatise, and write it through to the end with disillusion in his soul. But the born essayist, though knowing well enough that his raids into unconquered territory must be merely a perpetual series of sallies and retreats, nevertheless advances gayly to the assault. Like Lamb and Stevenson, he preaches without being a preacher; like Huxley and Tyndall, he teaches when he means only to inform; so communicable and infectious is this gift of curiosity about life.
There is a third type of essay, originating in the Renaissance emphasis upon individualism, and confidently asserting itself upon the pages of Montaigne,14 Addison, Hazlitt, De Quincey,15 Emerson,16 Thoreau,17 and a hundred other men. It is the autobiographic, egotistic essayin which there is rarely any insolence of egotism, but only an insatiable curiosity about oneself, and an entire willingness to discuss that question in public. If you like the man who is talking, this kind of essay is the most delightful of all. But it betrays a great deal, and like lyric versethe most intensely personalized mode of poetryit sometimes betrays too much. When the right balance is struck between openness and conceit, or when, as with Emerson, the man is sweet and sound to the core, the self-revealing essay justifies itself. Indeed, it is thought by some critics that the subjective or lyrical quality of the essay is a part of its essential character. Thus Professor A. C. Bradley has asserted: Brevity, simplicity, and singleness of presentation; the strong play of personality, the subjective charm, the delicate touch, the limited range of theme and of treatment, and the ordered beauty through exclusion of all disordered moods and fiercer passionsthese flow directly from the presence and dominance of the lyrical element, and these are the constant features of the Essay.
One should add, perhaps, that all three of the essay types here touched uponthe critical, the ethical or philosophic, and the personalwere strongly colored during the Renaissance, as they have been at intervals ever since, by the spirit of nationalism. French criticism, in the sixteenth century as in the nineteenth, is very French. English criticism, in Dryden and Arnold, is very English; the moralizing of Miltons tractates and of Samuel Johnsons Lives of the Poets, the personal assertiveness of Thoreaus essay on Walking, and Lowells essay on Democracy18 bear the unmistakable accents of England and of America. Blood tells, in the essay as elsewhere.
In fact, one of the most interesting studies made available through The Harvard Classics is the survey of various national moods in successive historical periods. Take, for instance, the English essayists of the eighteenth century. Here are characteristic utterances of men so differently yet richly endowed as Addison and Swift, Steele and Defoe,19 Sidney and Samuel Johnson, Hume20 and Burke,21 yet the student of the eighteenth century, whether he is reading Hume or Burke on Taste, or Johnson explaining the plan of his great Dictionary,22 Defoes ironical scheme for ridding the world of Dissenters, or Addisons delicately sentimental musings in Westminster Abbey, detects, beneath all the differences in style and varieties of personal opinion, the unmistakable traits of race, nation, and period. These essays are thus historical documents of high importance. One understands better, for reading them, the England of Marlborough and of Walpole, the England of the Pitts and the four Georges. Any one century, as Carlyle said long ago, is the lineal descendant of all the preceding centuries, and an intelligent reading of the English essays of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is one of the best ways of learning that significant lesson.
Even if the reader of these essays has no special knowledge of English history, and has hitherto paid but little attention to the influence of one school of thought upon its successors, he cannot help discovering one difference between what we have called the essay and its more specialized from the critical essay. The essay moves in a circle. Its orbit tends to return perpetually upon itself. One may even say that the type was already complete in Montaigne, and that since then it has made no real advance; that we have only a succession of essayists, doing, of course with infinite personal varieties of pattern, precisely what Montaigne showed them how to do. But the critical essay advances, albeit by zigzag lines. It is obliged to tack, as the winds of doctrine shift and the tides of opinion ebb and flow, yet it is always steering, and not merely drifting. Take, for example, the most famous critical essay of the Greeks, the Poetics of Aristotle. It is an attempt to establish certain fundamental principles of æsthetic criticism, such as the laws of epic poetry and the nature of tragedy. It analyzed the structure of contemporary works of literary art, tested the psychological effect of poem and play upon the mind of the reader and spectator, and laid down some shrewd rules for the guidance of poets. It is an essay rather than an exhaustive treatise, but it is by no means the sort of essay which Montaigne would have written had he been a Greek. It is impersonal, analytical, scientific. And so logical is its matter, so penetrating its insight, that it became a model of sound critical procedure.
The rules of Aristotle, based as they were upon the facts of human nature and the character of the literature of his day, deserved the reverence with which they were treated by the men who rediscovered them in the Renaissance. Trouble came only when the attempt was made to apply them rigidly and mechanically to poems and dramas of a type different from anything that Aristotle had known. Yet out of this very confusion and necessity for readjustment came the critical essay as we know it. Aristotle had set up Truth as his beacon mark: Truth to the physical and psychological facts, to the laws of beauty which are also laws of the mind. When the critics of the Renaissance and of the age of Neo-Classicism in France and England, confronted as they were by new facts, tried loyally to adjust the Aristotelian formulæ to the writings of Tasso, Shakespeare, and Molière, they made queer work of it. They endeavored to keep in mind both the polestar of the ancients and the rules of the French stage among the moderns, to say nothing of the cross currents of actual contemporary fact. It was a difficult course to sail, and it is no wonder that the history of the critical essay exhibits every variety of daring or faltering seamanship. But the beacon mark of Truth was there all the while, and though no navigator has ever succeeded in beating quite up to it, it is reward enough for the critical essayist if he seems to be making headway.
The writer of the critical essay, in short, finds that his course has been laid out for him by the very nature of the task which he has undertaken. The mere essayist, as we have seen, can sail in a circle, starting and ending with his own fancies; but the man who uses the essay as the vehicle of criticism must use chart and compass; must proceed from a given starting point to a definite point of arrival. And he cannot do this if he is ignorant of the efforts of his predecessors, and unaware of the general aims and methods of critical procedure. If he is writing, for instance, on the theory of poetry, he does not wish to leave the matter where he found it: he desires to make, if he can, a contribution to that branch of human knowledge. But he is not likely to succeed unless he has a tolerably clear notion of just how far the world-old discussion has proceeded at the point where he himself takes up the debate. When Horace wrote that clever versified essay on the poets art, an essay which has been irreverently termed the business mans guide to poetry, he had no intention of slavishly imitating the rules of the Greek theorists. But after all, his father had sent him to a Greek University, and the ghosts of his old professors were peeping over his shoulders as he wrote. And when, long afterward, the Italian Vida and the Frenchman Boileau came to write their own verse essays on the same topic, the ghost of the clever Roman held their pens. Sidney and Shelley, in composing their eloquent Defences of Poetry,23 had probably no conscious thought of continuing the formal discussion of poetic theory which the Greeks began and the Renaissance resuscitated; nevertheless, their confessions of faith in poetry form an essential chapter in the evolution of criticism. So with the prefaces of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Walt Whitman.24 These men are innovators in theory and practice of their craft, but, like most of the successful innovators and modernists in art, they possessed a fairly accurate knowledge of the ancient defenses which they were trying to carry by assault. Yet these assaults, no matter how brilliant, never really end the siege. The final truth escapes complete analysis and definition. The history of the critical essay shows only a series of approximations, a record of endeavors which must be constantly renewed.
Out of all this variety of effort, however, three tendencies of criticism emerge. They are usually called the judicial, the interpretative, and the impressionistic. The theoretical distinction between these tendencies of criticism is clear enough. Judicial criticism passes judgment upon established facts. It deals primarily with rules, with the canons of criticism, although it may, of course, examine the principles upon which these rules are based. Its estimates are likely to be dogmatic and magisterial. It says bluntly, in the voice of Jeffrey, that Wordsworths Excursion will never do; that his White Doe of Rylstone is the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume. It declares, with Professor Churton Collins, that Criticism is to literature what legislation and government are to states. The aim of interpretative criticism, on the other hand, is not so much to pass judgment upon a specific work, as to explain it. It seeks and establishes, if possible, correct texts; it makes clear the biographical and historical facts essential to an understanding of the work in question. It finds and reveals the meaning and beauty there contained. It points out the ethical and social significance of the literary product. To explain a book, no doubt, is often tantamount to judging it; for if the book be demonstrated to be full of corruption, that is the most effective way of declaring it a corrupt book. Nevertheless, the object of the interpretative or appreciative critic is primarily expository, and he prefers that the reader himself should pass ultimate judgment, in the light of the exposition which has been made. He puts the needful facts before the jury, and then rests his case. Sainte-Beuve25 is a master of this sort of criticism, as Jeffrey is of the magisterial. The impressionistic critic, finally, does not concern himself overmuch with the canons. He leaves universal considerations and the common sense of most to his rivals. Textual criticism bores him. The examination of principles strikes him as too scientific, the massing of biographical and historical details seems to him the work of the historian rather than the critic. He deals frankly in his own impressions, his personal preferences, the adventures of his soul in the presence of masterpieces. He translates the sensations and emotions which he has experienced in his contact with books into symbols borrowed from all the other arts and from the inexhaustible stores of natural beauty. His rivals may call him a man of caprice rather than a man of taste, but they cannot really confute him, for such are the infinitely varied modes of physical and psychological reaction to the presence of the beautiful, that nobody knows exactly how the other man feels. We must take his word for it, and the words of impressionistic criticism have often been uttered with an exquisite delicacy and freshness and radiance that make all other types of literary criticism seem for the moment mere cold and formal pedantries.
So much for the theoretical distinction between the three tendencies. But no one can read many pages of the masters of modern criticism without becoming aware that all three tendencies frequently reveal themselves in the same man, and even in the same essay. Some of the famous impressionists, like Lamb, Stevenson, Lemaître, and Anatole France, know a great deal more about the canons than they wish at the moment to confess. They play so skillfully with the overtones of criticism because they know the fundamental tones so well. Stevenson attempts scientific criticism in his essay on Style, historical criticism in his essay on Pepy26 Jeffrey occasionally writes national character criticism quite in the expository method of Sainte-Beuve. Coleridge and Emerson, Arnold and Ruskin,27 are too many-sided and richly endowed men to limit their literary essays to any one type of criticism.
The justification of this eclecticism of practice is found, as we have tried to show, in the nature of the essay itself. It is the most sinuous, varied, and individualized of all the forms of prose literature. The moment it begins to deal with critical theory, however, it is obliged to make its reckoning with some one more of the processes of judgment which have been evolved in the history of the race; it tends then to become historical, scientific, expository, judicial; it sails, as we have said, by the chart, instead of in the capricious circle of purely personal preferences. And it is in this relation of the essay to the critical essay that we discover something of the literary and social significance of essay writing. It meets a need of the individual, and performs at the same time a function for society. The individual reader turns to the essayists for delight, for stimulus, for consolation, for a fortification of the will. Cicero and Montaigne and Thoreau will talk to him about friendship and books and behavior. What more can he ask for? He finds in the essayists, as in the lyric poets, the reflection of his own moods, his own tastes, his own varied contact with experience. In their company, as in the company of every form of art, he becomes intimately aware of the fullness and richness of life. As for society at large, the essayistsand particularly those who have occupied themselves with criticismhave aided in the establishment of standards of judgment. These standards are impersonal and relatively stable. They alter somewhat, it is true, with the progress of civilization, and with the temper of successive historical periods in each of the civilized races of the world. But for any one generation the norm exists. The departures from it and the returns to it constitute the æsthetic and intellectual activity of that generation. Expansion and contraction, the study of mankind followed by the study of individual men and women; then a new series of generalizations followed by another series of concrete applications of ideas to lifethat is the history of culture. And while the essay has from time to time asserted the claims of liberty in all matters of the mind, the critical essay has with equal persistence recognized and maintained the claims of authority. One generation needs, no doubt, that its literary skirmishes should fight mainly on the side of freedom, and another generation will need no less that they should rally to the defense of law. There can be little doubt of the primary need of our own generation in America. We shall find most profit in reading those essayists who have a respect for literary standards, who are on the side of law.